December 20, 2001

Trumping Charity

By BOB HERBERT

The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, just north of Rockefeller Center. It’s in the heart of a neighborhood that is saturated with money.

The St. Regis Hotel is on the southeast corner. On the ground floor of the St. Regis is a Godiva chocolatier and a Louis Vuitton showroom. If you’re contemplating a cruise, you should drop by Louis Vuitton. You can pick up an exquisite handmade Damier trunk for a shade over $10,000. Grab some chocolates at Godiva on the way back to your limousine.

There are princesses and pink Christmas trees to delight the shoppers in the Disney Store on the northeast corner. And on the southwest corner is the Peninsula Hotel, where you can kick back and blow $400 or $500 on room service in a suite that, since Sept. 11, can be had for the bargain rate of $1,390 a night.

It’s a nice neighborhood. And everything would be swell if the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church could only manage to take its Christian charity mandates a little less seriously. You see, the church has been allowing homeless people to sleep on its property.

They sleep on the steps and on the ground adjacent to the church — 20 or 30 of them spending the night in cardboard boxes and other makeshift shelters. The church makes bathrooms available to them and allows them to come in and warm up in the morning, before they take off for the day.

This may sound like just the sort of thing President Bush had in mind when he suggested that faith-based organizations fill some of society’s social service needs. But the thing you have to remember about the homeless, if you want to look at this from, say, the point of view of the Giuliani administration, is that they are unsightly. You can’t have a couple of dozen people in threadbare clothes sleeping right out there where rich people can see them. Some of them were snoring away just a few yards from the double-parked limousines.

So the city sicced the cops on them.

At least three times this month the police have raided the area and forced the homeless, under threat of arrest, to go elsewhere. The most obnoxious raid came on the night of Dec. 11. Margaret Shafer, director of the church’s outreach program, said five police cars and three vans arrived at the church about midnight and police officers chased away most of the sleepers, leaving only those who had taken refuge on the church steps and under an archway.

“Then,” said Ms. Shafer, “about every hour for the rest of the night they came up to the people they had left in place and they beat on the boxes with billy clubs and woke them up and asked them how their health was. It was not the police’s finest hour.”

In fairness to the individual police officers, they did not seem happy with this duty. Ms. Shafer said the church generally has very good relations with the police. And a couple of the cops I spoke with at the church this week made it clear that harassing the homeless was not their idea of appropriate police work.

“The orders came from on high,” said one officer.

When I asked another officer to explain the crackdown, he pointed toward the Fifth Avenue street sign. “They think it’s bad for the area’s image,” he said.

The homeless have been sleeping outside the church, with the blessings of its congregation, for about two years. The police were generally tolerant. But Ms. Shafer noted that church officials had been asked to clear the area a few nights in late November and early December because dignitaries were staying in nearby hotels. She said officers on the beat told her one of the dignitaries was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Church officials complied, asking the homeless to stay away on those particular nights. When the homeless returned, the crackdown came.

Yesterday a federal judge issued a temporary ruling barring the police from taking additional action against the homeless at the church. The matter will be argued further in court.

But the ultimate issue remains. Where is the city’s heart? Why, in hard times, is the Giuliani administration pursuing this particularly mean-spirited case?

Well, it’s a tough time for business, too. Ten-thousand-dollar Damier trunks are not exactly hopping off the shelves. And when the crunch comes, commerce almost always trumps charity, Christian or otherwise.

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The gory details concerning Compassionate Conservatism in New York (such Christmas spirit would make Ebenezer proud!!)

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